Two Swedes and an American...
From the very first note, you know Miike Snow are Scandinavian. There’s something about the stuttering synthesizer pounding out a graciously major-key melody, with a hint of horns coming in, that is unmistakably Nordic. There’s a long line of this winning, celebratory pop with a melancholic undercurrent, running at least from Abba all the way through A-ha, Bel Canto, and the Sugarcubes; to the Cardigans, Annie, and Röyksopp. And that’s by no means an inclusive list. You can definitely add Miike Snow to the canon, though. Their self-titled debut is one of the most interesting, fun, and hummable pop albums of the past year.
Miike Snow have a couple aces up their sleeves. That’s right, contrary to appearances, they’re a band, not a solo artist. The tightly-arranged, danceable, electronic tunes are created by Swedes Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg. You might know them as the production team Bloodshy & Avant. They are most famous for producing and co-writing Britney Spears’ “Toxic”. They’ve also done other tracks with Spears, Madonna, and Kylie Minogue, among others. Yet you won’t hear any of these divas on Miike Snow. Nor is the album the kind of genre-spanning, guest vocalist-strewn mish-mash you might expect from a production team making a “proper album”. Instead, Karlsson and Winnberg have focused their talent and energy on catchy-yet-intelligent and often challenging pop songs. And, crucially, they’ve hooked up with American lyricist/vocalist Andrew Wyatt. Not only do Wyatt’s words add a sharp lyricism to the beats, but his smooth, expressive, charismatic voice gives them soul.
The traditional criticism of Scandinavian pop is that it’s too calculated, cold, and self-consciously “quirky” for its own good. The artwork for Miike Snow lampoons those notions brilliantly. The band have chosen for their symbol the jackalope, the mythical antlered jackrabbit that represents humans’ tendency to embrace the absurd. And the inner booklet features portraits of the three members, immaculately groomed but encrusted with ice and snow, as if they were hit by an avalanche on their way out of the stylist’s. It’s enough to warrant a physical CD purchase.
As if the music itself didn’t warrant it. Synths and pianos, and pitter-pattering, Ringo Starr-inspired live drums provide most of the backing. Karlsson’s and Winnberg’s dance music background is apparent in the various filtering and phasing effects, and some songs do take off on techno-inspired excursions. But it would be wrong to call this techno, or even straight dance music. It’s pop. The arrangements are uncluttered, clean, and crystalline, but often lush and warm.
Miike Snow lend plenty of diversity to their songs without straying away from their basic production values. “Animal” and “Cult Logic” are sharp, catchy pure pop with choruses that charm their way into your brain. The more pensive, martial “Burial” wouldn’t sound too out of place on Animal Collective’s recent Merriweather Post Pavilion, while “Black & Blue” is smooth, winning blue-eyed soul. Though it comes only three tracks in, Miike Snow‘s centerpiece is the stunning “Sylvia”. A six-minute epic, it begins as a stark, delicate ballad, a lost Duran Duran classic. On two occasions, gauzy synth pads and cascading synths accelerate the track into a psychedelic, danceable workout. It’s so thrilling, you’ll forgive the overzealous Auto-Tune. On the mellow side of things, closer “Faker” is a Beatlesque, midtempo charmer, bumbling bassline and all.
While all of Miike Snow is flush with the confidence displayed on its best tracks, it’s not without its lesser songs, or shortcomings. The snappy “Song for No One” is plenty good, but may be too close to Peter, Bjorn, and John’s iconic “Young Folks” for comfort. If the melodramatic “A Horse Is Not a Home” and dirty glam stomper “Plastic Jungle” aren’t quite over the top, they’re dangerously near. One or two too many songs open with staccato, eighth-note piano. But the trio’s craftsmanship combined with the momentum of the strongest tracks, pulls everything through.
Wyatt’s lyrics are another factor. Not interested in standard pop pap, they’re witty, complex, and often concerned with mortality and struggling relationships. Certainly, the divas whom Karlsson and Winnberg produce wouldn’t likely come up with a lyric like “I’ve become the serial killer of us both…don’t forget to cry at your own burial”. As in a lot of great pop, the darkness is belied by the upbeat, melodic music. “Oh God I think I’m dying / And our drinks were just poured” is a more typical example of the double-edged one-liners Wyatt is capable of.
Miike Snow, though not perfect, is one of those albums you’re thrilled to discover. An intelligent, satisfying, extremely listenable pop record, it’s simultaneously nothing you expected, and most everything you hoped for.
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// Notes from the Road
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